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Saul and David

Saul came after David in the desert. In the dark, David and Abishai, son of Zeruiah, made their way to the camp of Saul and found him sleeping inside the camp. Abishai then said to David that God had put Saul in David's hands. But David merely took Saul’s spear and the pitcher of water from beside Saul’s head. He did not want Abishai to strike at Saul for Saul was still the anointed of Yahweh. David went away and from the far called to Saul and to Abner, Saul’s army commander. Saul recognised that God had brought him into David’s hands when he saw the spear and the pitcher. He told he had profoundly done wrong. Saul blessed David for having spared him and wished David success in his undertakings. Saul returned home. David thus twice avoided a battle between the Israelites and twice spared Saul’s life.

David still feared Saul’s anger. He went to the Philistine territory, to live in the lands of Achish son of Maoch in Gath and settled there with his family and his two wives. When news reached Saul that David was hiding in Gath, in Philistine territory, he stopped searching for David. Achish gave the village of Ziklag to David and from there David raided against other enemies, against the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites. Achish trusted David and when the Philistines mustered for war on Israel, Achish even asked David to go into battle with him as vassal of the Philistines. David answered he would come, so Achish appointed David as his permanent bodyguard.

Saul and the Witch of En-Dor

Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (ca. 1470-1533). Rijksmuseum – Amsterdam. 1526.

The Philistines assembled for war and Saul was afraid when he saw their camp. Samuel was dead; all Israel had mourned him and he was buried at Ramah. So Saul could not ask for advice to Samuel anymore. The Philistines pitched camp at Shunem. Saul was afraid of the Philistine strength.

Saul called for a necromancer to consult him and since he was encamped at Gilboa, his servants found a witch close by at En-Dor. Saul disguised himself by changing his clothes and went to the witch accompanied by two men. He asked the witch to conjure someone up for him. The witch however answered that Saul had proscribed conjuring. Saul had to promise that nobody would harm her, and then asked to call up the ghost of Samuel. The witch conjured up Samuel for Saul. When she saw Samuel she recognised Saul also and was afraid, but Saul eased her.

Saul asked Samuel what he should do since God had abandoned him. Samuel told Saul what he already knew. Yahweh had abandoned Saul and given his favour to Saul’s neighbour, David, because Saul did not execute Yahweh’s will in front of the Amalekites. Yahweh would deliver Israel and Saul into the hands of the Philistines. Samuel predicted that after the battle of the next day Saul and his sons would be with him, Samuel. Saul fell full length on the ground then and he was terrified.

The witch owned a fattened calf, which she slaughtered. She took flour, kneaded it and baked with it unleavened cakes. She gave this to eat to Saul, and then the King left En-Dor the same night.

Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen made a picture of the witch of En-Dor. Van Oostsanen was a painter of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. He was born in Amsterdam and lived there his whole life, but he must have known the way of painting of some of his contemporaries and he was much influenced by these. He also worked for a time as an engraver in Antwerp, from 1507 to 1517.

Van Oostsanen was an artist of transition between the medieval, Gothic tradition of Flemish painting and Italian elements of the Renaissance. His paintings lean towards the works of three of his contemporaries: Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), Jan van Scorel (1495-1562) and Jan Gossaert called Mabuse (1478/1488-1532). A few elements of his painting ‘Saul and the Witch of En-Dor’ also remind of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) whose dark and mystical visions of witches and devils are somewhat mirrored in this work of van Oostsanen. Van Oostsanen must have thought that Renaissance style of painting was mainly a new way of representing old themes. He painted usually very many figures in his scenes, which was the continuance of a Dutch tradition to be found in Bosch pictures, and added many ornamental elements like Roman columns, flying angels and ample volutes in decoration. He painted ‘Saul and the Witch of En-Dor’ entirely in this style. He made the picture in the prolongation of Bosch’s obsession with satanic representations and we cannot but wonder what undercurrents to religion and ancient pagan habits drove artists like Bosch and van Oostsanen to show such pictures. The Christian religion though already old and implanted in society since long, must have lived in the country side by side with ancient folk lore of witches and powers of witchcraft. Bosch showed these and van Oostsanen continued with this picture the series, as if mesmerised and attracted to the darker powers of the mind.

Van Oostsanen represented various scenes on the canvas, as was the habit in much earlier medieval paintings.

In the middle foreground we see the witch of En-Dor hold her court. She is seated on an animal resembling a dog, the symbol of loyalty. This may indicate that the witch can exert power over other creatures that serve her loyally. She is of course old and ugly and van Oostsanen takes pleasure in showing her sagging breasts and her grey hair even if the witch hides this under a red cap. Objects of witchcraft are around the witch. We see an owl, the typical night bird for which men always were somewhat in awe as the bird only flew at night. A satyr holds open the book by which the sorceress will conjure up Samuel. To her side sits a man or a woman, pinching the leaves of the satyr’s hair. This may be Saul, but he has then already been transformed from a warrior into an instrument of the witch. The witch of En-Dor holds one metal baton high and fumes rise from this staff. She holds another such staff in a furnace to heat it until it is incandescent red. Power comes from fire; fire is a symbol of hell. The furnace seems to be fuelled by the heat from sunrays. We see another satanic creature coming from a nightmare of Bosch holding a mirror to the fire. With the two staffs the witch conjures and can bring temporarily to life the dead. She does that not by appealing to the powers of Yahweh, but through the powers of evil and hell, impersonified in the satyrs, the owl, the goats and the fiery angels that come hurling from the skies at her calling. The witch of En-Dor is in full action and van Oostsanen painted her blue-red silk gown flowing around her, showing an evil wind enveloping her. But for this gown, the witch seems to b naked.

On the left middle is another scene in which Saul presents himself at a gate of the witch’s dwelling. He asks to be received by the witch. Saul is dressed in armour and above him we see another small scene of the Israelite camp of soldiers, preparing for battle.

On the right is a scene of women witches that accompany the witch of En-Dor. The women are eating from a furnace and the symbol of wickedness, a goat with several horns is in their midst. Goats are a indeed a theme and emblem of witchcraft here, representing the evil forces; a witch, dressed in yellow and drinking from a beaker that may hold the gift of eternal life is seated on yet another goat. Above the women Satanic angels fly through the air on strange animals that might have been inspired by images of Hieronymus Bosch. These angles bring food to the witches. On the farthest right is a satyr, playing music on a mechanical, country instrument that wandering singers used in the Middle Ages. The women are drinking and eating and drinking so much, enticed by evil angels, was considered a sin. So these women are engaged in sin at the command of the witch.

Behind the witch of En-Dor are the ruins of an ancient palace and of course, the witch could not live in a well-built house. She can only live among the ruins of old buildings. The ruins have still Roman arches intact and through the largest, central arch we see Samuel rising from his tomb. Further in the distance, Samuel talks to Saul and tells him of the impending defeat of the Jews. In the far we see the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines.

The painting ‘Saul and the Witch of En-Dor’ is a complex picture of many scenes and even more figures, animals, angels and objects. Nevertheless, van Oostsanen organised his scenes in a logical composition of the ‘open V’. Here the witch and the movement of her staff high above her on the left, form the left angle of the V. Whereas on the right we see a woman holding high her beaker and a fiery angel coming down with a platter from the skies, followed by a streak of fire, form the right angle of the V. The V is indeed open so that a central arch is in the middle and through the arch the viewer sees in the far three further scenes of the story of the with of En-Dor. The viewer’s gaze furthermore goes to a piece of landscape and a blue sky with a sunrise so that van Oostsanen brought a natural perspective and thus far space into his picture. Van Oostsanen of course gradually diminished the dimensions of his figures in this landscape, adding to the sense of perspective and thus of distance in the viewer. Remark also the nice colour hues in the picture and how van Oostsanen brought balance in the colour masses. The with of En-Dor wears a gown of blue and red, colours indeed that are apparent in silk. And on the right we find a woman in blue and one in red.

Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen made many very religious paintings so that the ‘Saul and the Witch of En-Dor’ was a rare subject even for him. But it gave him the occasion to depict the evil powers that held the Christian powers in check. Therefore, although a scene from the bible, the story and images tell much more than the mere story of Saul’s encounter with a witch. Van Oostsanen seems to say that appealing to the darker forces only brings defeat, so that his picture is a very moralising one. But for that he needed to show ugliness and since he must have known Hieronymus Bosch’s pictures, he groped back to Bosch’s visions to represent witchcraft. And yet, he could not entirely follow Bosch but had to depict scenes that were more in line with the newer, Renaissance representations. Most of his figures in the painting are still human, and he painted the witch and her companion in Renaissance nude. In this aspect, his picture is quite interesting and rare.

The Apparition of the Ghost of Samuel to Saul

Salvator Rosa (1615-1673). The Louvre – Paris. Around 1668.

Like Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen in ‘Saul and the Witch of En-Dor’, the Italian master Salvator Rosa equally showed the witch in a scene painted hundred and fifty years later. Rosa also shows the witch while she is conjuring up the Prophet Samuel, but Rosa presented the witch even wilder, with even worse nightmare horrors around her. Now hell is more perceptible, close and full of immediate almost palpable danger. Rosa placed the witch on the left of the painting. She is, like in van Oostsanen’s picture, half naked, with an old wrinkled body and sagging breasts. Just like van Oostsanen saw her, Rosa depicted the witch using fire for her exorcism. A fire stand is near and she holds a pot out of which come fumes. She holds a twig high and over the pot, to set fire on the wood and thus bring light to the scene, or using the added powers of the fire to keep Samuel with her. She conjures up the powers of evil and Salvator Rosa showed a skeleton jumping from out of the darkness of hell towards the scene. The skeleton is hardly human and long, amphibian bones protrude into the picture middle. Rosa furthermore painted a horse’s head, a large heavy bird of the night, a skull of a predator bird and higher up another bird that could be an owl. All the lines here are fusing and Rosa used very deep tones of dark brown and grey colours to indicate hell and its devilish creatures of the night. The witch of En-Dor has grey hair that rises to the horrors above her, where all the beasts of hell seem to come at her appeal or at her command to recall and retain Samuel. Does she command these animals or do the animals try to take command of hr and does she need all her force to hold them back and not take in all the figures of the scene? The witch screams out at that effort. This whole image is nightmarish indeed and a remarkable picture or the century, sprouted out of a wild mind of a strange artist.

Salvator Rosa was a painter of the seventeenth century. He was born in Naples in 1615 and received his training as a painter in Naples, which was then under Spanish dominance. His uncle Domenico Antonio Greco taught him first, then his brother-in-law Francesco Fracanzano. Later still he painted in the workshops of Jusepe de Ribera and Aniello Falcone until 1635. In 1637 he left Naples and went to Rome. Except from stays in Florence from 141 to 1649 he spent the rest of his life in Rome and died there in 1673.

Salvator Rosa had a very strange, passionate personality. He was not only a painter but also a poet and a musician. He wrote satirical plays for a group of actors that he had assembled and with which he performed in Rome. In doing that he did not spare some of his fellow-artists and in so doing he attracted their enmity. Salvator Rosa painted battle scenes and landscapes, in which his wild, Romantic imagination prevailed. He also occasionally made religious pictures and more rarely still-lives. Later still he turned to engraving, hoping to become more known through this medium. Rosa painted in strong contrasts of light and dark, which was a tradition build in Rome after Caravaggio and his pictures are often very dark, which may be a way of depiction he saw from the Spanish Tenebrist styles learnt from Jusepe de Ribera.

In Salvator Rosa’s painting ‘The Apparition of the Ghost of Samuel to Saul’ the Prophet Samuel stands imperturbably before the witch of En-Dor. He still seems to sleep and the witch will need more effort to bring him entirely awake to Saul. To confront the devilish creatures, Samuel is dressed entirely in the white long cloth that may be the white linen in which he was laid in his coffin. By this white the viewer understands that this is Samuel’s ghost appearing to Saul. The Prophet Samuel is a dignified old man, but the only detail by which Rosa indicated this is the old face and the grey-white beard. Otherwise, Samuel is wholly covered by the white linen and he protectively holds his arms crossed, as he might have had in his coffin. It seems that he has only just been reluctantly recalled from his rest and from the solace of heaven to this cold, dark terrestrial night. Samuel is an imposing figure of wisdom and stands like a rock of purity before the forces of hell.

Before the Prophet kneels King Saul. From him also we see only part of a head. The king is frightened, kneels very deep with his head almost to the ground and he barely dares to look at Samuel. He seems oblivious of the witch, so in awe is he of the ghost of the Prophet. His soldiers also, behind Samuel, have fallen to the ground and look in surprise and fear. The witch of En-Dor, the Prophet Samuel and King Saul thus form the three figures of the scene and they are brought closely together in a scene of horror mixed with spiritual purity and earthly power.

Salvator Rosa used a composition based on the diagonals of the frame. From the back of Saul over Samuel’s head goes the left diagonal and from the fallen soldiers on the lower right over the line of the witch’s twig to the outlines of the satanic animals goes the right diagonal. But this is a scene of horror and chaos, so Salvator Rosa did not much emphasise these lines, even though they are present as directions. He almost deliberately avoided the lines in places and broke their direction. The picture is in dark tones as this is a night scene, but a diluted light come from the lower left, accentuates the left diagonal and lightens a few details of the picture. The light falls magnificently on the yellow-golden cloak of King Saul, on the naked back of the witch and on the white linen of Samuel. Here we see the remarkable skills of Rosa in painting chiaroscuro on the cloaks and in giving the right impression of volume in the bodies of Saul and Samuel. Salvator Rosa played marvellously with light and dark in this picture, in the best style of Roman contrasts and Spanish Tenebrism.

The pictures of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen and of Salvator Rosa lay separated by hundred fifty years. One picture was made by a North European painter of the Netherlands, the other by an Italian of Naples in Italy. Yet the image Western Europeans had of hell, of devilish creatures and of witches were remarkably the same. A visual consensus over how witchcraft might be demonic seems to have been universal and to have been a consistent, continued image.

Saul’s Death

In the meantime the Philistines lost confidence in David. Achish, king of the Philistines, told David he trusted him but that he was not acceptable to the chieftains. So Achish sent David home. Then the Philistines marched on Jezreel without David. David arrived in Ziklag again, only to hear that the Amalekites had raided the town and taken his two wives captive. David went in pursuit of the Amalekites. Soon they found a young Egyptian who had been a slave to the Amalekites and this boy indicated to them where the Amalekites had gone. David found his enemy’s camp as the Amalekites were still celebrating and feasting on their booty. David attacked them by surprise, slaughtered them all and returned with his family to Ziklag.

At the same time, while David fought the Amalekite bandits, the Philistines gave battle to Saul. The Israelites were defeated and slaughtered at Mount Gilboa as Yahweh had predicted. Jonathan was killed there, as well as Abinadah and Malchishua, two other of Saul’s sons.

The fighting concentrated on Saul and he was severely wounded by the archers. Saul then said to his armour-bearer to take his sword and run it through him. But the man was very much afraid. So Saul took his own sword and fell on it. The armour-bearer seeing that Saul was dead, fell on his word too and died with Saul.

The Israelites had lost the battle and they saw that Saul was dead. They abandoned their towns and fled. The Philistines occupied the towns. They found Saul and his sons. They cut off Saul’s head. They showed Saul’s armour throughout the Philistine territory to proclaim their victory. They gave the armour to their temple of Astarte. They bound Saul’s body to the walls of Beth-Shean. The Israelite warriors of Jabesh however set out and took the bodies of Saul and his sons off the walls of Beth-Shean. They buried their bones under the tamarisk of Jabesh in Gilead.

The Suicide of Saul

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569). Kunsthistorisches Museum – Vienna.

In Pieter Bruegel’s painting ‘The Suicide of Saul’ we have a typical example of his mastery of landscape. Mountain views, forests, open plains and a river are shown in one picture, painted according to scenes of nature as Bruegel had absorbed them in his mind from his travels and combined as the setting for a Bible tragedy. Like in many of Pieter Bruegel’s paintings the landscape is the most important element. Bruegel constantly showed his viewers how majestic and grand, how over powering nature can be. Nature was imperturbable for this artist and eternal, and people just moved in it, strange aliens that adapted parts of the nature for their meagre needs, but these changes in the environment always seemed small an un-disturbing. Nature was overwhelming and silent. It was the patient universe in which people like small ants only passed but were no masters off. They formed part of the nature ultimately, as long as they remained small. And so Bruegel painted people. Thus, the tragedy of King Saul’s death was but a detail in the grandeur of the world’s nature and a slain king was nothing more but a triviality.

Pieter Bruegel showed Saul’s army and the also the Philistine army as they are engaged in battle. The clash of the battle is hardly shown. The viewer will remark the forest of lances and flags rising out from the marching mass of soldiers, but few individual soldiers can actually be discerned. Behind the army lie the dead, assembled in the heaps where the fighting among the groups were the hardest. Here the slain fell by numbers.

In the mountain rocks, on a boulder that dominates the battle scene, we see the small figures of Saul and his armour-bearer. Saul lies on the rock, with the sword to his neck. His armour-bearer is still seen fallen on his own sword. Bruegel painted how the armour-bearer pushed the sword to his throat and then leaned on the sword to his death. A few Philistine soldiers climb the mountains, where they believe Saul had fled and one of them finds indeed the king and beckons the other to hurry.

In Pieter Bruegel’s paintings like ‘The Suicide of Saul’, man is small and nature is great. Saul’s death does not impact nature and the act disappears in the everlasting nature. Bruegel had a very great sense of eternity and of the smallness of human deeds. He was the artist who relativised as no other the Renaissance call to greatness of man.

Pieter Bruegel must have been born around 1525 to 1530. He died already in 1569 in Brussels, so he was not much older than forty years. He seems to have been a student of Pieter Coecke van Aalst; at least he married a girl called Mayken Coecke in 1563. So wrote Karel van Mander in the middle of the seventeenth century. Van Mander was a Flemish painter and chronicler of Flemish and Dutch painters’ lives but exact information on that has not been found in the registers of the time. Bruegel appeared in the town of Antwerp in 1551 and his name was then entered in the lists of the guilds of painters. He may have studied elsewhere however. Bruegel became an independent master in Antwerp in 1551 and in 1553 he was in Italy. He crossed the Alps and travelled to Rome, but very little is know of this trip except his later engravings of spectacular mountain views. The first dated painting we have of Pieter Bruegel is from 1558 so that the whole known work of this master covers merely ten to eleven years. Fifteen, about half of his paintings are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, Austria and so is the ‘Suicide of Saul’.

Bruegel painted thousands of figures in his thirty-five or so oil paintings. In his early pictures and in rarer later paintings he painted people close to the viewer and then considered background and landscape subsidiary. With growing age, though he died young, landscape became more important for the artist, and he then placed his figures smaller in the landscape and rather distributed them over the canvas, often lost in the wide nature. Landscape was preponderant for him and the subjects from the Bible that he used were merely occasions for landscape pictures and for the message that all what happened to mankind and to individual people was trifling compared to the grandeur of nature. Bruegel preferred to show very far, deep, global views and he situated his figures in the vastness, in the enormously broad valleys and against the high mountains.

Bruegel usually applied a composition in his landscape views that was oblique. He positioned the main theme –always a human story – to the left in a triangle and opened the view on the right to the far. He was a master who looked at nature in an epic way and he placed epic Bible of mythological scenes in epic nature. In such views however, nature dominated and had the right to occupy the largest part of the canvas and the part of honour: the right side.

King Saul’s drama disappears in the chaos of the rocks of the mountains; the wide landscape of the picture remains in the impression of the viewer. Is it not also thus with the stories from the bible? We read and learn about individual Bible tales, but story after story adds only each one grain to the epic breadth

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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